For most of his work, Robert Olen Butler’s literary instinct has taken him to Vietnam and its culture. He’s drawn fiction from his days there as a military spy and translator. In 1993, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” lyrical but somber tales drawn from the lives of Vietnamese immigrants in America.
Now, in his new book of stories, “Tabloid Dreams” (Henry Holt), he’s turned his knack for making the foreign familiar to coaxing fresh voices from behind the headlines of supermarket tabloids.
The titles alone--"Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” “Boy Born With Tattoo of Elvis"--suggest a delirious departure, but Butler explains that the line isn’t so clear. “There is a deep connection,” he declares, “between the Vietnam stories and these.”
Both, he notes, explore the intimacy of first-person narrative. By looking at “the scandalous and miraculous in a fin de siecle culture,” he’s focusing anew on perennial themes of longing, loneliness, passion and death.
To write the stories, he mixed the talents of confessor and medium. He did just that when he was handed a copy of the Sun and was asked to improvise a tabloid dream on the spot. In his poolside hotel room, he sits with the paper on one knee, a note pad on the other. He studies a headline--"First Prez a Pot Head!”
Finally, he reads in a plaintive drone: “Isn’t a man with wooden teeth, a cowardly Congress and a nagging wife allowed to find some relief? You have to stop pressing me to be a hero, for God’s sake.” He says they all came this way, the voices past the headlines talking and talking to his cocked ear.
One couldn’t help but notice the kinship between this apparition and a ghostly Ho Chi Minh, who visits an old friend in the title story in “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” (also Henry Holt): “Ho Chi Minh came to me again last night, his hands covered with confectioner’s sugar.” It is an exquisite opening sentence, with a verbal music that blows almost breeze-like to the ear from someplace beyond the page.
He found his new book in the weary dream state of the late-night shopper. He had stopped at a 24-hour market near his home in Lake Charles, La., for milk, and while he waited to pay he studied the racks holding the tabs. “I’d just finished ‘A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,’ ” he said. “Suddenly, all those themes I had been writing about leaked out and attached themselves to whatever headline it was that night.”
He bought one issue, then others, and began inventing his own headlines. Through the tabloids’ weird revelations, he glimpsed “urban fables and universal myths” reflecting the pathos and humor of ordinary lives.
The stories brim with unexpected transformations. In “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” a ghost who has turned to water tells how he helped a woman to a lifeboat only to realize he’d lived a life of romantic detachment. The protagonist of “Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire,” is torn between rivalry and loyalty toward a friend she faces in a cookie bake-off.
She loses, and--well, poof!
Other writers revel in popular culture. But much of that work, Butler argues, “uses irony and satire in ways that reflect a contempt for people they write about.”
Most of Butler’s novels propel characters through the drama of America in Vietnam and Vietnam’s encounter with America. The novels “Alleys of Eden,” “The Deuce” and “On Distant Ground” (published by Henry Holt) erupted from that “intense life experience.”
They go beyond anger about the war to where the word “Vietnam” stands for universal ruin and renewal. “Bob used his intensely considered personal experience to look at the world through the eyes of the Vietnamese. That really hadn’t been done before,” says John Clark Pratt, a scholar of the American literature of Vietnam. Bruce Weigl, a poet who fought in the war, notes that Butler managed his feeling for the Vietnamese with such precision that the translations of the stories have won respect among writers in Vietnam.
An only child, Butler was born in Granite City, Ill., the son of a college drama teacher. His mother did some painting. Once an aspiring actor, he shifted in his undergraduate career at Northwestern to writing plays. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in playwriting and enlisted in the Army in 1969. After a few months of intelligence work, he ended up an assistant to the Foreign Service officer advising the mayor of Saigon.
The power of the experience comes clear when he says, “I was born in ’45 and in Vietnam in ’71.” In Saigon, he got to know “perhaps the warmest and most generous-spirited people in the world.”
By the time he returned in 1972, he’d written a dozen full-length plays. “I realized that my most impassioned writing was going into the stage directions, which is a bad sign for a playwright.” Next, he wrote “five terrible novels and four dozen ghastly short stories--all from my head, with that same intellectual derived energy I came to strongly mistrust and dislike.”
Finally, while writing “The Alleys of Eden,” something in him turned. He started to tap rich parts of himself that had been locked. In 1981, “The Alleys of Eden"--after 21 rejections--became his first published novel.
Butler stresses the difference between the writer before the book and the one who emerged. The first tried to will writing to life. Today, he says, he works “with no preconceived notions of what I’m trying to do, no plans for what the book should be.”
Despite strong reviews for his novels, commercial success eluded him. His answer was to take bigger risks. He was stunned, as were many beyond a small literary circle, when he won the Pulitzer, a rare victory for a book of stories.
Romantic satisfaction has also had a long evolution. He married his fourth wife, Elizabeth Dewberry, a novelist, last year. His only son, from his second marriage, is an aspiring filmmaker in Los Angeles.
Finally, Hollywood has found Bob Butler. HBO plans three short films based on “Tabloid Dreams.” He wrote a screenplay for “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” for director Wayne Wang that’s still in turnaround.
His next challenges will be a “another novel coming out of Vietnam” and a sequel to “Tabloid Dreams.” The voices haven’t stopped.